When I visited Taiwan for the first time in 2011, it was just for two days. But those two days were glorious, spent mostly exploring its capital city of Taipei, but also trekking to nearby villages and taking in some of its incredible sights. Blessed with the opportunity to go back last fall, this time for an entire week, I couldn't wait to get on the plane and return to the land of dumplings, steamed buns, bubble tea and Hello Kitty. Taiwan, like other Asian countries I've been to – Japan, South Korea and Thailand – has its unique qualities, from its history and customs to its architecture and people. But what I love most about it is the food. The food there is some of the best I've had anywhere.
Something else to love about Taiwan, or the Republic of China as it's officially called, is its acceptance of all walks of life, including the LGBT community, which is supported by the government and embraced by pop culture. It may soon become the first Asian country to legalize same-sex marriage and it currently hosts the continent's largest Gay celebration, the annual Taiwan LGBT Pride, which drew more than 80,000 people in October.
I began my journey, as part of an LGBT group tour, in Taipei and then traveled to Taichung, Tainan City and Kaohsiung. Trekking around Taiwan is simple and affordable by high-speed rail, or bus, so there's no need to rent a car during your visit. Uber service is available and popular in Taipei, and also very LGBT-friendly, sending a large team of cheery employees to the Pride festivities last fall.
Definitely consider a trip to Taiwan in the near future, either for a weeklong stay, or a stopover while visiting another Asian destination.
Taipei is a city of 4 million people, not including an additional 4 million that reside in the surrounding area, making it a large city indeed. But in comparison to Tokyo, which is massive, or Bangkok, which is overly congested and at times chaotic, Taiwan's capital city is a cinch to navigate and it's orderly; everything seems to run on time, everyone is civil and every piece of architecture, from high-rise office buildings to ancient temples, fits the landscape like a finished puzzle; there's no wasted space.
We stayed two nights at The Landis Hotel, in the vibrant Zhongshan district. The hotel is both a business and leisure property with the usual guest room amenities included, such as flatscreen TV, work desk, floor-to-ceiling closets with slippers and robes, personal grooming and hygiene products and bathtub/shower, as well as complimentary WiFi. I had a view of the city streets below and I could peer into residential apartments across the way from my window. What I really enjoyed about the Landis Hotel, besides its centralized location, was its French-themed restaurant on the main floor that served wonderful breakfast buffets. Western and Asian favorites, from cold cereal and fried eggs with bacon to meat-stuffed dumplings and rice, plus miso soup, fresh fruit, pastries, fruit juices, coffee and tea, got my morning off to a great start.
Taipei 101 is the city's top landmark, not only by recognition but also by height, standing tall at 1,671 feet off the ground. Although it's 101 stories high, making it the tallest skyscraper in the world up until 2004, visitors can only ascend to the 91st floor, which has an outdoor observatory, but most people take in the spectacular views from the enclosed observatory on the 89th floor. One floor below, on the 88th, is a 660-ton steel pendulum that acts as the structure's tuned mass damper, helping to balance the building during severe storms, or unexpected strong gusts of wind. Unlike the Space Needle here at home with elevators on the exterior, the 37-second ride from the 5th to 89th floors is entirely inside the building, a comforting fact for anybody scared of heights. Once you make your way down, explore the mall on the lower levels of Taipei 101 with lots of stores and eateries, including a Taiwanese favorite, Din Tai Fung. This internationally renowned restaurant, which now has a location in downtown Seattle and another in Bellevue, is known for its steamed buns and hand-forged dumplings made on the premises. Besides the dumplings, considered a national specialty, a variety of vegetables and steamed rice, plus chocolate dumplings for dessert, are available at Din Tai Fung.
Another important landmark to explore while sightseeing is the Chiang Kai-shek, or CKS, Memorial Hall, constructed in memory of the Republic of China's former president, Chiang Kai-shek. Memorabilia and archives from the late leader and his family are exclusively on display in the expansive building, where a changing of the national guards happens hourly on the top level, overlooking the immense courtyard. Also worth checking out is the Song Shan Cultural Park, a redeveloped area with art exhibits and showrooms that feature a diverse collection of work, some by Taiwanese locals and young students. Lungshan Temple of Manka, in the Wanhua district, is also recommended, especially for travelers wanting a history lesson. The Buddhist temple was originally erected in 1738 and though it has been destroyed multiple times by fires, earthquakes and during war time, it has been rebuilt again and again as a beloved national treasure, where locals arrive daily to worship and find peace.
You'll feel like royalty when you dine at the Yuan-Yuan Restaurant inside the immaculate Taipei Grand Hotel, which has hosted everyone from Hollywood's elite to global political dignitaries. The stunning dining room provides guests with impeccable views of the city from its floor-to-ceiling windows as they feast on authentic cuisine of the Jiangsu and Zhejiang regions. Fruitful Food is a vegetarian buffet restaurant with a terrific selection of freshly prepared items, including pizza, soup, salads, pasta, dumplings, tofu dishes, various forms of rice and sinful desserts. I'm not a vegetarian, but I very much enjoyed this ample and busy restaurant because of its abundant offerings and the quality of food. Go Bar is a popular hot pot restaurant, located in the basement level of a shopping area near the Gay district. Diners choose the broth for their hot pot and then circle two sides of a long counter stocked with meat, seafood, vegetables and noodles to add to their dish, cooked by themselves.
The Ximending neighborhood, within the Wanhua district, is Taipei's Gay stomping grounds, where a cluster of bars with outdoor patios, dance clubs and restaurants allow you to socialize with the local LGBT community and a significant number of international visitors. Sol Bistro, CaSa Bar, K House, Cafe Dalida and Mudan are a few of the spots I'd recommend checking out in Ximending, a centralized part of the city that is safe and quite active.
If you love traveling on trains, I suggest a ride on the Taiwan High Speed Rail. Much like the Shinkansen, or "Bullet Train," in Japan, the THSR, as it's more commonly called, will get you to mostly anywhere around the country in a matter of minutes or hours. We ventured out to Taichung from Taipei's Main Station, a one-hour trip that afforded us glimpses of Taiwan's bright green countryside and smaller cities along the way. The train cars were probably the cleanest and quietest I've ever ridden on, and passengers can choose to travel by 1st or 2nd class; the only differences between them are more legroom and a 2-2 seat configuration in 1st class vs. less legroom and 2-3 seat configuration in 2nd. Attendants come through all cars during the journey to sell coffee and snacks; although every station appeared to have a Starbucks, I brought my own coffee on board instead.
Arriving late morning in Taichung allowed us plenty of time to scope out the contemporary, eclectic art collection at the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, a multi-story architectural beauty with exhibits inside and outside, including some that are interactive. Taichung is the third most populated city in Taiwan and slower-paced, less expensive and less crowded than Taipei with a modern flair of its own. The Millennium Hotel Taichung, where we stayed, was a perfect example of this modernity, a luxurious property with grand lobby, trendy rooftop bar that overlooked the city and elegantly furnished guest rooms that provided everything from wall-mounted HD LED flatscreen TVs to glass-door showers and separate bathtubs to personal brewing systems with premium coffee and teas. In many ways, it felt like staying at a Four Seasons stateside. The breakfast buffet was abundant and the service throughout the hotel was top notch.
You'll stumble into half a dozen bubble tea shops in Seattle's International District, but did you know that this beloved beverage originated in Taichung? Indeed, this is the birthplace of these love em' or hate em' milky drinks, known for their tiny tapioca balls that sink to the bottom of the cup. Also worth noting is that you can become a certified bubble tea maker, similar to a barista, by taking a 30-minute class at the Chun Shui Tang Cultural House. On the third level of the shop, doubling as a cafe with food and beverages, you'll learn the exact ingredients and measurements, plus visual instruction from an expert, on how to make bubble tea, and then you'll earn your certificate by putting the learned skills to task by creating a drink yourself.
Taichung is south of Taipei and further south is Tainan City, the oldest city and former capitol of Taiwan. What I recall most about Tainan City aren't the sights and sounds, but the food. Our first meal was at Du Hsiao Yueh, a highly rated casual restaurant serving excellent slack season danzai noodles, a specialty dish in these parts that looks very much like spaghetti with marinara sauce, but here the noodles are made by hand and the pork-based ragout is slowly-cooked for an amazing flavorful taste. Also try another local specialty, milk fish, and the sauteed greens at Du Hsiao Yueh. Suggested for a nice sit-down dinner is the Premier Restaurant, a traditional Chinese eatery with an expansive dining room decorated with bright red carpet and wooden partitions with rice paper screens. You haven't eaten fried rice until you've tried the real thing, and this place served some of the very best I've ever eaten, in addition to fried frog legs, braised beef with ginger and steamed vegetables. The third of three meals we had in our 24-hour visit to Tainan City was breakfast at our hotel, which was slightly minimal to the buffets we had at the other hotels we stayed at. The property itself, Silks Place, was a contemporary hotel with wooden floors, window side padded benches with fluffy pillows to capture the urban sprawl views and a lovely assortment of hand lotions and hair essentials. The Glass House lounge is an indoor bar that has an outside open-air terrace with astro turf flooring and cozy couches to mingle with fellow guests and sip cocktails.
For sightseeing, the Taiwan Confucian Temple dating back to 1665 during the Koxinga dynasty is now a much-visited tourist attraction and site where ancient Confucian ceremonies are still preserved. Chihkan Tower, formerly Fort Provintia, dates back further to 1653 during the Dutch colonization of Taiwan, originally used as an outpost and now standing as an historical landmark of Tainan City and the whole country.
The final city we visited was Kaohsiung, my favorite from this trip following Taipei. Kaohsiung is even further South than Tainan City, along the coast by the South China Sea. Lotus Pond is famous for its Dragon and Tiger Pagodas, twin seven-story towers that can be climbed by stairs to the top with amazing vistas from above. The newly developed Pier-2 Art Center is a small complex of food, art galleries and shopping posts in a former industrial space; definitely wander into the Eslite bookstore and pick up a keepsake, or book, to take home with you and grab a coffee at its adorable cafe. Xiziwan, also referred to as Sizihwan, is a small hillside community in the Gushan District of the city that overlooks the bay on the Taiwan Strait. This is a must go-to place for photographers, as the views of the skyline are incredible.
If you want to rub shoulders with the locals and experience the city's public transportation, I recommend hopping on the simple-to-use Kaohsiung Mass Rapid Transit, or KMRT, the underground light rail system. The magnificent Formosa Boulevard station includes various retail shops and snack counters in a beautifully illuminated underground plaza that also features daily artists playing piano, or other musical instruments, with a dedicated seating area to hear them perform; it's certainly the fanciest train station I've been in.
Should you wish to discover the local street food scene, take a 5-minute ferry ride from the Kaohsiung Harbor to the Quijing District and peruse the many carts and pop-up stands lining the streets, selling everything from noodles and meat dishes to refreshments and snacks.